The Typical Response to Pain

Massage for knee pain
There’s more you can do than just massage

I’m always surprised how many students aren’t able to be on their hands and knees, even for a short time, due to knee pain or injury. I guess it’s not so astonishing—the knee is one of the most complicated and the most commonly injured joint in the body.

Our usual response to pain is to focus on the place we feel discomfort. We rub, ice or otherwise try to fix the specific place that hurts. In the case of knee pain, doctors take an MRI of the knee, physical therapists give stretching and strengthening exercises for the knee, and massage therapists dig into the muscles above and below the knee.

Even in speaking we talk about the part that hurts as if it’s an independent entity that acts of its own free will:
“My knee refuses to bend past 90 degrees,” “My knee tilts inward when I walk” or “My knee wakes me up during the night.”

Why the Typical Response to Pain Falls Short

Body parts
Unlike a car, you are not made out of separate parts

The #1 mistake people with pain or injury is narrowly focusing on a single part of the body to the exclusion of the rest. Your knee isn’t a separate entity: you turn your knee in when you walk, you don’t know how to bend your knee past 90 degrees and you have difficulty sleeping because you experience painful sensations in your knee.

The health of your knees cannot be separated from the rest of you. Your posture and how you move is a contributing (if not main) factor in knee pain. Your knees are also intimately connected with their neighboring joints: the ankles and hips. You’re at risk for strain or injury when these three joints are not coordinating smoothly.

The alignment of your head, neck and torso also dramatically influence how weight goes into your legs. Even a tiny amount of strain on the knee as you take a step quickly adds up when you consider how many hundreds or thousands of steps you take in just a single day.

Figure with knee pain
The knee is one of the most commonly injured joints

A New Approach to Resolving Pain

Fortunately, you have an amazing capacity to learn and change. In fact, “the real power of most pain-treatment methods to bring lasting results lies not within the methods, but in…your contribution, the responses you bring to your own healing process.”1

Becoming aware of what you’re doing with the rest of yourself is one of the most effective ways to recover from pain and injury. More often than not, the place that hurts is quite innocent, not the source of the “problem”. As you clarifying the connections between your knee and other parts of yourself, you’re able to move in more balanced, harmonious ways that reduce stress and strain in your knee.

Connections that Speed Recovery

Knee pain detective
Develop your detective skills to reduce knee pain

So how do you make these connections and speed recovery from knee (or other) pain? You become a bit of a detective: you ask questions, listen to answers and hunt down clues to get to the bottom of the case. For example, “When I bend my knee to sit down, what happens in my lower back—does it get longer or shorter?”

There is no right answer or way it “should” be—everyone is different. But through this process, you’ll discover details about yourself and your movement habits you didn’t know, all the while your nervous system in taking notes and making changes. Gradually, estranged parts of yourself gradually reconnect for more coordinated and comfortable movement.

How to Become Your Own Pain Detective

Try This Movement Exploration

I’ve created a 12-minute audio lesson to get you into detective mode. It’s just one of many explorations you might do to crack the Case of Your Knee Problem.

Knee Pain Detective Audio

(Note: the lesson is done standing)

Click to download audio file

Continue Building Your Detective Skills

Ask questions
Ask questions and listen to your sensations

After doing the audio lesson, you’ll have a sense of the types of questions to ask. I encourage you to create your own movement explorations, asking yourself questions and making observations.

You can use simple, everyday movements such as turning to look right and left, getting up from a chair or reaching for a glass in your kitchen cabinet. You can also do movements in bed or on the floor such as lying on your side, rolling a little forward and back or lying on your back, gently rolling one leg in and out.

I’d love to hear what you discover about yourself and/or what changes you experience (you can email me here).

Take a Class

People in a movement class
© International Feldenkrais® Federation Archive, Robert Golden

While the reasons for your particular issue are unique, chances are high that lack of mobility and softness in your chest plays a role. When you have more suppleness in your ribs (and the vertebrae they’re connected with) there are positive ripple effects through your whole self.

Sign up for my Ribs to the Rescue class (or other series) to help relieve pain and stiffness.


1. Freedom from Pain by Peter Levine and Maggie Phillips